Ag & Markets: NextEra impact on farmland "significant"


By Patsy Nicosia

State Ag & Markets has raised a long list of concerns over the super-sized solar project proposed along Route 20 in the Town of Sharon.
Because of its size, the 352-acre, 50-megawatt NextEra Energy project is subject to state—not local review; a public information session that had been on the calendar for March was cancelled because of COVID-19.
State review through the Siting Board, however, continues.
And in testimony presented June 5, a senior environmental analyst for the State Department of Agriculture & Markets called the project’s impact “very significant.”
Tasked with identifying and evaluating the potential impacts of solar on agricultural and farming, Jason Mulford testified that as proposed, Ag & Markets will not support the project as proposed.
Ag & Markets “strives to minimize the permanent conversion of productive agricultural lands,” Mr. Mulford said, and supports solar “if the proposed projects are properly sized on lands other than the state’s most productive farmland.
While understanding the need to address climate change and clean energy, “…[Ag & Markets] believes the production of food cannot be compromised, as the production of food is more essential than the generation of electricity.”
Speaking specifically to the NextEra proposal, Mr. Mulford testified that his office feels “that the impact to the Town of Sharon’s agricultural community is very significant”—despite the fact that developers’ application calls it “insignificant considering farmland at both the town and county levels.”
The application identified 312.5 acres that will be used for the project, however when considering land likely to be abandoned by agriculture, Ag & Makets puts the figure at more than 400 acres.
Ag & Markets strives to limit the conversion of the best soil types to 10 percent, Mr. Mulford said; the project looks to permanently convert approximately 85 percent of the site’s most productive farmland.
While acknowledging that the remaining land is poorly drained and includes wetlands, Ag & Markets “believes that there is ample opportunity for the applicant to utilize other lands…to minimize the impact to the state’s most productive soils for continued agricultural use,” Mr. Mulford said.
Ag & Markets agrees that the project would benefit dairy farmers Jim and Sharon Sherman, who’d be leasing their land to NextEra, “and their continuing agricultural endeavors,” but said the same doesn’t hold true for absentee landowners at High Hills LLC, where the bulk of the project would be located.
Mr. Mulford questions claims that the lease payments will be “typically reinvested in the community,” and “that this diversified income helps support the [local] agricultural community.”
NextEra made no attempt to address any of these concerns, Mr. Mulford said, and Ag & Markets “will not support the project’s siting.”
An alternate proposed siting would impact less land—though it would still be prime farmland--he said, and [Ag & Markets] “does not consider [it] as a suitable alternative either.”
Asked by the Siting Board whether there are any options that would make the project acceptable, Mr. Mulford said yes: mitigation funding “directed to a local land trust interested in farmland protection, and/or to support local conservation best management practices associated with agricultural activities…which would alleviate the department’s issues with the proposed siting.”